Bullying Can Happen to Anyone
If even high-profile adults aren’t safe from bullying, how can we hope to protect our children?
Thirty-eight-year-old Gisele Barreto Fetterman is married to Pennsylvania’s Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. She recently went to the local supermarket unaccompanied by her security detail. Another shopper recognized her as Fetterman’s wife and hurled a racial epithet at her both inside the store and, later, when she was getting into her vehicle. According to Fetterman, the stranger said, “You don’t belong here. No one wants you here.”
The incident was caught on video.
Bullying and Hatred Have Become Normalized
Ms. Fetterman, who emigrated from Brazil when she was 7 years old, experienced flashbacks of the rejection and fear she lived with for so many years as an undocumented immigrant (she became a proud U.S. citizen in 2009). She didn’t need to be told that some of her fellow Americans were racist and hateful, but she was horrified that some people aren’t even trying to hide it anymore. Bullying and hatred somehow have become normalized.
Racist behavior is, unfortunately, positively reinforced by some elected officials these days. And maybe some adults have the resilience to handle it.
If we have been the target of ugly words before, we can probably survive hearing them again. While Ms. Fetterman was likely re-traumatized and hurt, she was able to tell her story to the Washington Post.
She didn’t try to hide the incident. She didn’t internalize it. She didn’t cower in the corner, feeling ashamed and powerless, the way many children would.
Presumably, members of the public who hear Ms. Fetterman’s story will react with empathy and outrage. She will undoubtedly receive the support she needs to recover from the unprovoked attack and reclaim her power. Adults have gained enough life experience to know how important it is to use their voice to deal with bullies and mitigate the harm they cause.
Bullying Hits Children Even Harder
But children may be even more vulnerable than adults to hurtful words, because they haven’t had time to develop the tools that are required for dealing with bullies. Kids may not know their self-worth doesn’t depend on what others have to say about them.
Perhaps because they have so little experience, peers’ acceptance matters more than it does for adults. Children may be at a complete loss to respond appropriately to name-calling and the suggestion that they have no value.
They may feel too ashamed to ask anyone for help and, as a result, they may suffer a permanent loss of self-esteem. They may forever lose their sense of safety and belonging.
Even many adults may lack the skills that are required to confront bullies. Yet schools claim that that zero tolerance policy protects kids adequately from harm. I would suggest that isn’t enough. There’s too much hatred in the world for a few rules committed to pieces of paper and a handful of good intentions to adequately keep children safe from racism, hatred, and bullying. If an adult can’t even feel welcome in a supermarket, how is a child supposed to feel comfortable at school?